As China awaits ruling, Beijing contends it is the real victim

By Emily Rauhala analysis

A Philippine flag flutters from the deck of the Philippine Navy ship LT 57 Sierra Madre off Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Photo / AP
A Philippine flag flutters from the deck of the Philippine Navy ship LT 57 Sierra Madre off Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Photo / AP

After months of posturing and press releases, Beijing has published what may be its definitive domestic statement on the South China Sea arbitration case.

In a front-page editorial published the day before the Permanent Court of Arbitration is set to rule tonight in The Hague, the People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, argues that it is China, not the Philippines, that is the "real victim," casting the case as a foreign "plot" to weaken and humiliate China.

"The facts have proved clearly that the Philippines South China Sea arbitration case is completely a "trap" targeting China, which is hyped and manipulated by the US, led by the Philippines, and with cooperation from the arbitration courtroom," it says.

If you've been following the very loud run-up to tonight's ruling, some of this is old news. In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have launched a massive, multi-lingual push aimed at discrediting the arbitration and disseminating the Chinese point of view.

A former diplomat preemptively labelled the ruling a piece of "trash paper". State media called the court "law-abusing". One paper accused the Hague of "playing the fool" by allowing the Philippines to air its claims.

What's interesting about the People's Daily piece is how it merges a story about law with one of the Communist Party's most potent narratives: national humiliation.

Outside China the country is usually discussed in terms of its "rise". The US tends to talk about China as a country growing ever-richer and stronger, as a soon-to-be superpower about to supplant the Uncle Sam. (See, for instance, Donald Trump's comments in the early Republican debates.)

But when the ruling Communist Party talks about China's place in the world, it is less likely to talk about the country's rise than its "rejuvenation" after a century of humiliation that started with Qing losses to the barbarian British during the Opium Wars and lasted until the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has made the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" one of his signature slogans, drawing a rhetorical line between the humiliation and suffering of the past and the strong, proud China of the future.

In a major speech last September, he called Japan's defeat in World War II a "great triumph" that "crushed the plot of the Japanese militarists to colonise and enslave China and put an end to China's national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times".

State media are now using similar language to describe the maritime disputes that have pitted China against smaller, less prosperous neighbours, most notably the Philippines.

A recent China Daily editorial headlined "China will not swallow bitter pill of humiliation" drew a direct link between the suffering of the Opium War era and the as-yet-revealed findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

"The days have long passed since the country was referred to as the 'sick man of East Asia' whose fate was at the mercy of a few western powers," it read.

The People's Daily yesterday took that emotional appeal a step further. "China is growing, but the humiliating experiences of being invaded by outside enemies and bullied by hegemonic powers in more than a century are the inerasable memories of Chinese people," it says.

"Chinese people who have walked through such historical memories will absolutely not allow the replay of 'the humiliating past' even in part."

Having set the tone, Beijing's challenge is to respond to the ruling in a way that will affirm nationalist sentiment, but also keep the peace. When you convince the body politic that dignity and destiny turn on victory, it becomes dangerous to lose.

- Washington Post

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